Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘City of London’

Sunset oak - North Downs diary - November 2016 - D. Greenwood

North Downs diary, Farthing Downs, November 2016

Three o’clock and the sun sinks in the east, casting long rays of light through the papery sepals and stems of knapweed and agrimony, summer’s relics. Threads of spider silk drift between these old frameworks, a material stronger than steel by comparison. The experts will tell you that at this time of year birds depart the highest open reaches of the downs, and there are few birds around. This is the perfect camouflage for a crow, the sun so low and dazzling there could be hundreds of them chowing down on the edge of the hill. One lifts up, gliding on the wind, hovering kestrel-like, remembering its place.

I came here with thoughts of waxcaps bright and beautiful, but two hours out here and I only find one picked and overturned. The life is being scraped from the downs by the raking wind, the tumbling temperature and coming dark, the slide into winter. Yet every seasonal change is the same, like a shift in human history, it is not one event that brings about the enclosure of darkness but several over time. You can find its waymarkers, indicators of something different on the horizon. Each season, like each era of civilisation, is a product of the ones which came before.

Cows grazing - North Downs diary - November 2016 - D. Greenwood

The cows graze the grasslands, their coats lit red by the sun setting behind them. Their breaths puff out like smoke as they chomp. It is a reassuring sound, grass uprooted and chewed over. They offer few glances to those of us passing by this morning. Pied wagtails, a bird I don’t often see here, perch on their backs and pick at their pats. In the scrub slowly being cleared from the downs by the City of London, redwing break between hawthorn and rose, their wings lit as they break cover. I know why this work is being undertaken, I’ve helped with it elsewhere on the North Downs, but I am losing my old signposts in this open landscape. The area where willow warblers once nested, where redwing and whitethroats used to feed up, a hawthorn where chafers fed one evening: all of it grubbed out, the soil lightly ploughed. This scrub is being cleared to allow the return of chalk grassland, one of Europe’s rarest habitats, much of which is found in England and a surprising amount in London. Our response to the clearance of trees is almost always emotional, that’s okay, but it’s important to know why it’s happening but equally important to ask why.

A woman passes me with a broad smile, covering her eyes from the sun to look at me. She stops:

‘Isn’t it wonderful,’ she says, her companion a little surprised that she has stopped mid-conversation. ‘Cows, fields and sunshine.’

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘It’s like being in the countryside. Wait a minute, I think it is the countryside.’

‘I’m lucky, I live just next to it,’ she says, making her way.

I agree with her, she is lucky.

Up ahead a figure sits on a mobility scooter next to the millenium monument atop the hill. They are taking pictures of the sun disappearing behind the hill. Knowing I’m part of the photos I stop and ask, ‘would you like me to give a certain pose?’ She laughs and throws out her arms to suggest a stance.

‘What camera have you got there?’ she asks, my camera on its tripod resting over my shoulder like a bazooka. ‘I’ve got a Canon but haven’t used it in a while,’ she adds.

I don’t enter into the Nikon-Canon banter.

Her name is Tilly and she lives locally in Coulsdon. ‘Just down the road,’ she says. ‘Where are you from?’

I tell her that I’m not so local and I come here to get away from the SE postcode.

She asks what I’m here to photograph, ‘wildlife?’ She has it right, but there are a disappointing lack of mushrooms. ‘It’s probably the wrong time of year for that,’ she says.

Dusk on the downs - North Downs diary - November 2016 - D. Greenwood

It’s been the right time before but an anxious thought creeps in – does someone know the movement of waxcaps here in some kind of hyper-intuitive detail? Probably not, it’s just been a rubbish autumn for them. She recounts tales of campervan holidays out in the New Forest’s old military sites where she could bolt her caravan into the old RAF concrete and fly agarics fruited on her portable doorstep. ‘I’ve not been there for a while though,’ she says. ‘I was ill last year, and I’ve been ill this year, too.’ She nods as if admitting something.

The sun has left us now, a few scraps of cloud coloured by the glow.

‘I love the red of those clouds,’ she says. ‘Apparently there’s a green flash when the sun goes down.’

‘It’s called the green ray, there’s a French film about it called Le Rayon Vert,’ I say.

‘Oh, I’ll have to look it up,’ she says. ‘Watch out for the cow pats.’

 

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Farthing Downs & Happy Valley, March 2016

A motorbike oozes across the road that runs through Farthing Downs, its deep, unsettling groan scatters woodpigeons and magpies from the branches of trees. When it’s over another sound breaks through: a male yellowhammer. Its song is never quite the ‘little bit of bread and no cheese’ it’s accepted as, but the mnemonic is so memorable that those of us who might not have known it ever existed can remark upon it, can seek it out. The bird is a silhouette, a blackhammer in a hawthorn bush against the bold march sun.

Winter’s decorations still remain, it is a time of flux. The cropped green grasslands and anthills look like a sheet, the racket of chalky wildflowers hidden below. If you didn’t know this was chalk grassland now you wouldn’t expect much else to come. Redwings dot the tree lines, their calls which were in October nocturnal now add to a soundscape that includes the spring skylark, high up above my head, marking out a territory that signals an intent to force new life. I see two of these birds. The skylark is one I hear or see only every few months. Its song has no hint of monotony. But one that I have missed this winter and can hear day after day in spring is the blackbird. From trees that separate Farthing Downs and New Hill it lights the valley with its gentle verses. The shadows grow long, reaching into the blackbird’s dreamy hedgeland.

In Happy Valley the hazel trees’ tails mass like wigs. Looking closely, the buds are cocked ready to leaf, some with the purple tongues of flowers poking out. The yellow grains of pollen that have come from the dangling tails can be seen. I flick the tails to help. The twigs of hawthorns are coloured yellow and blue by Xanthoria parietina. Trying to get a close up photo of the fruiting cups, the apothecia, I find the ‘roosting’ buttons of ladybirds. Who would ever see them here? Dogs, voles, mice, flowers, lichens. Surely only the most inquisitive birds would ever find them.

In the shelter of scrub the primroses bloom in old dogwood leaves. I love this time, the birds singing from the woods and trees, the first flowers breaking the rule of death and decay. No doubt, spring and summer have plenty of that to offer, but at least now the pendulum has swung the other way.

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Farthing Downs, Coulsdon, November 2015

It’s a struggle, this time of year. The early darkness feels new and staunch. It’s a time to dread as far back as July, when the birdsong goes and some butterflies begin to look tattered. The newness of spring feels far away. But here we are, a mild November once more, knapweed and scabious in flower on Farthing Downs. I’ve often heard people say November flowers are confused, a human trait, of inaction. Really these hardier daisies are taking advantage of the warmth, ‘waiting’ for the frost to kill their petals off. Where there are no flowers I find instead the wreckage of waxcaps, trodden in by human, cow or canine. Some meadow waxcaps lie young and picked. There is a natural urge to do so, though the City of London Corporation won’t allow you to. I lie on my side to photograph a bright red honey waxcap that had me magnetised and muttering upon seeing it. Farthing Downs and neighbouring Happy Valley are rich in this family of mushrooms, due to the ancientness of the grasslands. The Corporation’s workforce have cleared a large chunk of post-war oak, hawthorn and ash woodland, opening up more ground for the rare waxcap habitat of this chalky landscape. I ponder the fact that a similar area of trees is to be landscaped up north in the borough of Southwark at Camberwell New and Old Cemeteries in order to provide new burial space, resulting in a campaign and a heated debate amongst the local community. Here at Farthing Downs this important work passes with no such fuss.

The grazing cattle’s cowpats merge with the mud coughed up by the machines brought to clear the trees. Looking closely, the surface of each poo is dotted with tiny orange coins. They are the fruiting body of Caprobia granulata, a dung fungus. But that is not the only life to be found on the cowpats. Yellow dungflies, one of 54 species in Britain, perch on the ledges of the pats, brawling and mating in the furrows. Some rest in perfect stillness until I venture too close and their mounds are vacated in an instant. I hear the alarmed calls of a crow and look up at the faintly blue sky. Nothing. It is usually the crow’s indicator of talons and curved bills. Indeed, I see them now – two rooks and a crow, the latter with a piece of food held between its bill, chasing a sparrowhawk. They dive and the hawk turns its talons up at the incoming corvid, righting itself with a 180 degree spin. The sparrowhawk slows, turns, ducks another attack and then moves off, gliding to the safety of Devilsden Wood.

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Evening meadows

Evening meadows, Farthing Downs, London, June 2015

It’s that time of year when the meadows are reaching their height. Here you can see the yellow rattle in flower, soon field scabious will appear to be fed on by burnet moths and bumblebees.

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Farthing Downs and New Hill, London, June 2014

In the towns swallowed by London’s urban lurch, summer is flowering knotweed, rosebay willowherb and lupins, all non-native, all bold and blooming along Victorian railway sidings. At Farthing Downs summer strikes out in meadows of yellow rattle, dropwort, field scabious, hawkbit, ribwort plantain and sheeps sorrel. The first meadow browns, ringlets and small heaths take flight, the latter locked in a pair, mating, flying as one away from my lens. Stopping to take in these grassy Downs, the sheer number of butterflies is clear.

But the birds have not retired just yet. I hear a cry from the blue sky and see a buzzard tucking in its wings and bombing towards Coulsdon. This is the first I’ve seen here, and its arrowing for London is without doubt. This is now officially the most common bird of prey in the UK. I also hear the songs of linnet, song thrush and chiffchaff. Spring and summer have clashed in a frenzy of yellow, green and the common blue butterfly. On New Hill pyramidal orchids cascade across the slope, the leaves of spring cowslips now tucked in under the shade of orchids, rough hawkbit and yellow rattle. The bed of marjoram bounces, its fragrance only felt when touched with the fingers. On the other hillside jackdaws flock with two sheep grazing, their medieval world clattering along with their calls, like bullets ricocheting. The sheep go about their tasting, the meadows purpler still.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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Gull

Farthing Downs, London, January 2014

From the hawthorn trees comes the sparkling sound of thrush and finch chatter. All around the landscape is weighed down by weeks of rain, the sodden grey and blackness, but this conversation lightens the scene. A flock of goldfinch burst into the sky, skipping through the air in their piecemeal flock. Their yellow wingbars flash against black feathers like miniature human warning signs. I train my binoculars on the thorns and see a redwing sat in the branches, contributing to the bird discussion. As I step towards them it ends instantly and so I turn and take a path to leave them.

The stumps of ash trees glow resinous on the hillside, the felled trunks lie supine beside them, the bark darkened by rain, the green and blue lichens thrive without a care for the tree’s demise. The brash has been piled and burned in elevated corrugated iron beds, and to many people this would seem like a careless act of deforestation. But it’s not. Farthing Downs sits on a bed of chalk and is home to a vast array of wildlflowers which are disappearing from the English countryside. The City of London Corporation are here engaging in a battle of restoration. Further along the path a black-headed gull skates low over the lane – I’ve not seen them so close to the grasslands here – propelling itself up and into the wind. Its relationship to winds so cold and blustery seem uneasy, and against this vista of meadows and woods, all the more unique.

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